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Win a copy of ‘The Flying Boat That Fell to Earth’

Graham Coster’s The Flying Boat That Fell to Earth is a love-letter to a mode of transport that is simultaneously improbable and fabulous: “an aeroplane walking on water; a boat defying gravity — as magical as a flying pig”. The author, who is lucky enough to have travelled on a few flying boats (there are no longer any in service), will be speaking at the new Stanfords shop in Covent Garden, London, next Tuesday, February 19. Tickets, available in the shop or online, cost £4, redeemable against the price of his book.

I have two copies of the book to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, just retweet my pinned tweet from either @kerraway or @deskboundtravel, or like and share my post about the book on facebook.com/deskboundtraveller.

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet the mention of the prize on Twitter from @deskboundtravel or @kerraway, or like and share the post about the prize on the Deskbound Traveller Facebook page, by midnight on Thursday, February 21, 2019. Each winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom, will receive one copy of the book. Winners will be selected at random and notified by Monday, February 25. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more about the book, see the website of Safe Haven Books.

Coster talks flying boats

Graham Coster, author of The Flying Boat That Fell to Earth (Safe Haven Press), will be speaking at the new Stanfords shop in Covent Garden, London, on Tuesday, February 19. Tickets, available in the shop or online, cost £4, redeemable against the price of his book.

Competition winners

Happy reading to Angela Rogers and Grace Lajoie, winners of the Deskbound Traveller competition for a copy of Graham Coster’s The Flying Boat That Fell to Earth

Up, up and away

A while ago I recommended some books that, even in these days of frills-free, bag-measuring airlines, can restore some of the wonder to flying. There are a couple more I would now add to my list. One is Skybound (Picador), Rebecca Loncraine’s hymn to gliding, which was one of my books of 2018. The other book I would add is due out in the New Year, and I’ve just started reading an early copy.

  My friend Graham Coster, who commissioned several travel anthologies I edited while he was at Aurum Press, is now running his own imprint, Safe Haven, where his quirky offerings include titles on everything from urban birding to unsent letters. On January 10 he’s republishing a book of his own, The Flying Boat That Fell to Earth (which first appeared in Penguin, in 2000, as Corsairville: The Lost Domain of the Flying Boat, and was read on Radio 4 and praised by reviewers as various as William Boyd and Jeremy Clarkson).

  It tells the story of an Imperial Airways flying boat, Corsair — one of a fleet carrying pre-war passengers in lap-belt luxury from the UK to Africa and Australia — which  made a forced landing in the Belgian Congo. Coster tracks down the “air mariners” who went to Central Africa in the extraordinary salvage operation that followed, traces the old mail route the flying boats flew through Africa, and travels to the Bahamas and Alaska to fly on the last flying-boat services left in the world. His book is a love-letter to a mode of transport that is simultaneously improbable and fabulous: “an aeroplane walking on water; a boat defying gravity — as magical as a flying pig”.

  In a poignant afterword for the new edition, he points out that it’s a book he couldn’t write now: there are no flying boats left to catch anywhere. So the nearest you can come to sharing his experiences is to read his book…

The Hill Station

Though we’d walked up Pepys Road’s steep slope for lunch,
A cafe christened The Hill Station meant
A narrow-gauge railway, snuffling steam
Up Telegraph Hill, must be the true ascent.
From weathered-teak platform at New Cross Gate
Between the Sainsbury’s and the Overground,
A rack-and-pinion loco that once bent
Up squealing switchbacks, Himalaya-bound,
And fired by Northern Line submariners
Retired to daylight, at the park would slow
To drink deep from the duckpond, and then pound
To the summit, London’s hazy plain below.
But hefting trunks and churns would leave the guard
No time to check you’d swiped your Oyster card.

Graham Coster

Graham Coster is the author of two travel books, Corsairville: The Lost Domain of the Flying Boat and A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, about riding with long-distance truck drivers. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta and The London Review of Books. Until recently he was publisher at Aurum Press.

‘The world was turning around the axis of Gosfield Maid’

‘Coasting’, a penetrating dissection of Britain and the British at the time of the Falklands War, is one of five books by JONATHAN RABAN that have just been reissued by Eland Publishing. In this extract, Raban, off Devon in his 30-foot ketch, finds himself at the centre of the universe

 

 

Everyone was embarking for somewhere. On the rising tide I rowed the dinghy up into the village and loaded it with pacific supplies like bags of charcoal for the stove, new wick for the lamps, a mackerel line and, in case the mackerel line came to no good, some tinned sardines and steak-and-kidney pies. At midday I embarked for — I wasn’t sure where. I crept as quietly as I could, with the engine keeping up a stream of warlike remarks, down the Yealm into a brisk blue day on the open sea.

  I had been single-handedly in charge of the boat for less than a week, and was shivering with adrenalin and nerves. I checked the shrouds overhead to see they were clear, wound up the heavy sails on their winches, tidied the foredeck, wrapped ropes round cleats, until the whole boat was tuned and taut, braced against the wind and ploughing splashily ahead. She did not sail like a yacht: her trawler hull drove heavily, bullishly, through the water, shouldering it aside and raising plumes of sunlit spray over the bows. She didn’t so much lean to the wind as yield to it unwillingly, exposing as little of her hull below the waterline as she possibly could.

  With the reactionary engine shut down, I listened apprehensively to every sound in the sudden quiet. Ropes creaked and banged in their wooden blocks. The freshwater supply slopped and gurgled in the fifty-gallon tank under the cockpit. The chains of the steering gear rumbled with every small adjustment to the wheel. The short sharp waves marched steadily alongside, breaking against the hull in a continuous low hiss. Once, I caught the noise of an intruder’s footsteps, but it was only the rhythmical flop-flop-flop of loosely packed books in the saloon shelves.

  Gosfield Maid lumbered along under sail at about four sea miles an hour, but it felt as fast and heart-in-mouth as flying, with the water foaming past under the gunwale and the boat’s wake breaking up behind her like a jet trail. I was utterly absorbed in the anxious business of simply staying afloat, living from moment to moment and from wave to wave.

  Anxiety kept me very much busier than I need have been. I was frightened that the compass was wrong, that the tidal current would carry the boat miles off course, that fog would come down, that I’d lose my landmarks, that the wind would blow up into a gale, that I’d spring a leak — that, somehow or other, this intense, private, scarifying pleasure was eventually bound to turn into a string of bubbles.

  I had the floorboards up to check the bilges. They were dry. Were they too dry? I blackened the chart with crosses, and kept on dashing out into the cockpit with the hand-bearing compass to see if Bolt Head and Prawle Point were still where I’d last left them, or whether they’d made a break for it and escaped over the horizon. From three miles off, the Devon coast was still winter-brown in the April sun; its headlands, cliffs and outlying rocks looked like a crumbled and half-eaten fruit cake on the edge of the sea.

  The egotism of a man by himself in a boat is bolstered by everything that he can see. Out on the water, you are the centrifugal point of the world through which you move, carrying the great disc of your horizon with you as you go. The first lessons in navigation entail an almost-scientific proof of the magnificent fallacy that the universe has been constructed for your convenience alone.

  Bolt Head and Prawle Point are important for their relative bearings — their bearings in relation to you, which alter with every move that you make over the sea floor. The land in general turns into a wonderfully protean material: cliffs slide in and out from behind each other; new hills slowly enfold themselves round cities; houses and trees wander about the landscape, meeting and separating, while you stay fixed on your own lumpy patch of water.

  This is just a prelude to the higher egotism yet to come. I had on board a sextant which I meant to learn to use sometime, together with Maria Blewitt’s Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen. The book began by sketching out an intoxicating fiction:

We navigate by means of the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the stars. Forget the Earth spinning round the Sun with the motionless stars infinite distances away, and imagine that the Earth is the centre of the universe and that all the heavenly bodies circle slowly round us, the stars keeping their relative positions while the Sun, Moon and planets change their positions in relation to each other and to the stars. This pre-Copernican outlook comes easily as we watch the heavenly bodies rise and set, and is a help in practical navigation.

  Forget Copernicus? I had spent my life trying, pretty much in vain, to remember Copernicus. I was delighted by this navigator’s view of the universe, in which everything was just as it seemed to be, with the sun, moon and stars as mere satellites, tastefully disposed about the globe, and man the navigator at the epicentre of the whole ingenious piece of clockwork. Geocentric and egocentric are one small typing error apart; in celestial navigation, I had at last hit on a cosmology I could live with.

  ‘Sometime, old boy,’ my father said, ‘you’re going to have to learn that the world does not revolve around you.’

  Thirty years on, I was learning the very opposite. With the headlands changing places and the sun going west, the world was turning round the axis of Gosfield Maid and I was back to Ptolemy.

  Far out on the rim of the world, and in some danger of dropping off it altogether, there was the faint angular silhouette of an enormous ship. I couldn’t tell what it was — maybe an aircraft carrier, maybe a cruiser, but it looked big, naval and Falklands-bound. Seen from the centre of things, its distant shadow was comfortingly insubstantial, anyway; an irrelevant distraction from the really important business of ropes, compass points and log readings.

  I had never known a privacy so deep and self-contained as this. It was temporary and spiced with fright. It was bounded by Devonshire on one side and the task force on the other, but for the moment at least it felt absolute: an isolation, and an equilibrium, often dreamed of but never experienced till now. Lurching airborne through the sea, with lots of sunshine, a good library and the kettle just coming to the boil, I thought: I wouldn’t half mind spending eternity along these lines.

  But the wind was fading and Gosfield Maid was down to three knots, then two and a half, against a foul tide that was picking up in speed as the English Channel tried to empty itself into the Atlantic Ocean. Off Start Point, twenty-four miles and seven hours out of the Yealm, I gave in and got the engine going. It came to life with a burst of patriotic blather.

  The sea here was suddenly troublesome. Stan Point sticks out into the tidal stream, a mile-long breakwater of solid granite. When the tide is running, it piles up against the headland and pours round its end in a confused mass of white water — eddies, whirlpools, and frothy, pyramid-shaped waves. When a strong wind blows against the grain of the tide, the place is dangerous, a sickening switchback ride over an indignant and frustrated sea which will do its best to spit you out and suck you down at the same time.

  There wasn’t enough wind to do that today, but there was a broad stretch of water ahead, rippling, off-white, like a field of grazing sheep. As soon as it came into sight, the boat began to slew and stumble through the waves, even though their tops were barely breaking. Following the instructions in the pilot book, I tucked myself in within a half mile of the shore, waited until the lighthouse shifted round from northeast, through north, to north-northwest, and steered for it, aiming to shave past the rock with fifty yards or less to spare.

  All tide races are supposed to have an ‘inside passage’ — a ribbon of water close inshore through which you can sneak past the race without getting caught in it. These inside passages only exist in the right weather. Some are just diluted versions of the turmoil to seaward. Some are avenues of calm as wide as the Champs-Elysées, others are narrow alleys in which a boat is squeezed tight between the race and the rocks. They are all places where your heart quickens and you keep your fingers crossed as you go in.

  The inside passage round Start Point was there that evening — a broad, sluggish channel, its seaward bank marked by a ragged line of scum. It led into what was left of the sunset; a few low cloud banks smeared with ochre and mauve. Everything was darkening fast: Start Bay was turning to a lake of ink and lights were coming on in the straggle of villages along the shore. I steered for the fading obelisk on the hill over the entrance to the River Dart until I lost it in the dowdy sky. Then there was just a confusion of coloured lights. Crab boats, returning to the river at different angles, showed as winking dots of red, white and green. The trouble was that the rest of the world was afloat too. Pubs, cars, lamp-posts and front rooms were bobbing about among the crabbers. Observing the international collision regulations, I gave way indiscriminately to nursing homes, Volvos, bungalows and guest houses as they steamed past my bows, before I found the metrical flash of the Kingswear light, which guided me into the river between a pair of invisible castles.

  By night, Dartmouth was a dazzling incandescent city. It blazed on the water, a mile-long pool of blinding reflections so hard and bright that you could nearly hear them clink. They shattered and regrouped in the criss-cross wakes of fishing boats and ferries — a Manhattan of lights on the hop. I left Gosfield Maid chained to a buoy in midstream, rowed through the middle of the loud reflections, found a seafood restaurant on the waterfront and basked in my luck at happening on such unexpected splendour.

  But day broke on Boots the Chemists and on Barclays Bank. It disclosed an English seaside town, bunched and squat, with too much pastel pebbledash and too much teashoppe half-timbering. The jam of traffic on the streets was as quiet as sludge, patiently shifting, a few feet at a time, through narrow conduits of low brick villas and tall advertisements for low-tar cigarettes. On a green hill of razored lawns to the north of the town, the Britannia Royal Naval College lorded it over Dartmouth. I studied it through binoculars. No one seemed to be at home, although some wheeled cannons were parked on the gravel near the front door. The college didn’t look a very friendly place. Its bland white façade and banks of bare uncurtained windows gave it the supercilious expression of an officer staring fixedly over the tops of the heads of the Other Ranks. Searching the grounds, I found a gardener marching a motor mower uphill, another cannon, pointed strategically at Marks & Spencer’s in the town, a bed of obedient and well-drilled roses, a blue naval Land-Rover and a horse. Perhaps everyone had gone to the Falklands.

Extracted from Coasting by Jonathan Raban, published by Eland at £12.99.
© Jonathan Raban 1986

So… ‘there’s not much to say about airplane journeys’

Gatwick airport in London is expecting its busiest day of the year for outbound passengers this Friday, with 84,000 heading off. Given the security queues they’re likely to join, most of those passengers will understandably be thinking  of the flight as a necessary inconvenience en route to the beach, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Could they be persuaded to change that view? Maybe by reading some of the following…

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage)
If you’ve made expensive journeys to the far north and been denied a sighting of the aurora borealis, you might want to skip the chapter on night flights. “Sometimes,” Vanhoenacker writes, “I find it hard to remain interested… because [the northern lights] appear so regularly; because they are routine to pilots, ordinary by definition.” Flying, on the other hand, which for most of us means a long wait followed by a cramped seat, is for him a thing of wonder, and a pair of wings “this most charmed of our creations”.

Vanhoenacker, who flies 747s for British Airways, was born in America – to be a pilot, clearly. Taken to Disney World as a child, he couldn’t wait to get back on “the magical vessel” that had brought him there. Having worked as a management consultant (with time to stare out aircraft windows) to pay off student debts, he began flight training in 2001 and is now a senior first officer with BA – and one of those lucky people who can change the weather. If he wakes to an overcast sky in London, he knows he’ll be rising above it.

Join him on his journey, and you’ll see immediately that he’s anything but the aviation equivalent of a petrolhead. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, he touches on Joni Mitchell as well as Mach 1, on T S Eliot as well as tailwinds. In the pages of his book, if not necessarily on your next outing in the economy cabin of his 747, you will find yourself agreeing that “The ordinary things we thought we knew… become more beautiful.”

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury)

Through the lives of a fictional family, McCann links three episodes from history: the first non-stop transatlantic flight; the visit of a freed American slave to Ireland; and Senator George Mitchell’s peace-broking in 1990s Belfast. In a cat’s cradle of journeys, the most powerful passages are probably those on the flight in 1919, by Alcock and Brown, in their Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Clifden, in Connemara. It’s a sustained feat of imagination in which McCann inhabits not just the cockpit but the minds of the aviators.

Aloft by William Langewiesche (Penguin Modern Classics)
Before he was a writer for Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, Langewiesche worked as a pilot for 15 years from the age of 18, so editors have pushed him towards aviation. In this collection of essays, he considers how we move about the earth and how we view our place within it. Some are frightening, some reassuring, but all of them are “suffused with the wonder I still feel that as a species we now find ourselves in the sky”.

West With The Night by Beryl Markham (North Point Press/Macmillan)
Beryl Markham (1902-1986) grew up in Kenya, hunting with the Maasai, worked as a bush pilot and became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west. Her memoir culminates with that feat and her Zen-like response when, somewhere over Cape Breton, her engine cut out. Hemingway, who was no fan of hers, said: “[she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers… it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Penguin Modern Classics)
Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) might not have been a model pilot, prone as he was to day-dreaming at the controls and near-fatal crashes, but he made poetry of his experience. This book, which recounts his years flying airmail routes across the Sahara and the Andes, culminates with the story of his miraculous survival following a crash in the Liyban desert in 1936 while he was trying to break the Paris-Saigon record.

Beyond the Blue Horizon by Alexander Frater (Penguin)

Alexander Frater’s first flight, on December 31, 1946, a few days before his ninth birthday, was on an Empire flying boat from Sydney to the Fiji Islands. In the mid-1980s, he set out to try to recapture the romance of it, following as closely as possible the route taken by Imperial Airways from London to Brisbane in the 1930s. His booklet of tickets was “probably the largest ever issued on British Airways coupons”.

The Wild Blue Yonder: The Picador Book of Aviation edited by Graham Coster (Picador)
This 1997 anthology (edited by my friend and former publisher) includes extracts from Saint-Exupéry, Markham and Frater. If Coster were asked to update it, I’d urge him to add pieces from Langewiesche, Vanhoenacker and McCann. As it stands, though, taking in everyone from WB Yeats to Tom Wolfe by way of Biggles, it’s the perfect rejoinder to Paul Theroux’s assertion (in The Tao of Travel) that “there is not much to say about airplane journeys”.

Travelling with William Trevor

William Trevor, who died this week, once said: “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so; I am a storyteller.” He was a masterful one, not just in the short form but in the novel and in his work for radio and television. He was a great scene-setter, too, as I was reminded by dipping into a collection of his essays, Excursions in the Real World. This is his opening paragraph, in a piece from 1970, on one of the world’s great train rides:

‘You are really lonely,’ the anaesthetist remarks on the Orient Express, ‘when you find yourself reading your toothpaste tube.’ He pauses and then elaborates, adding that in Ethiopia a bout of homesickness had once been comforted by the address on a carton of Sterilized Plain Lint Finger Dressings. Boots, Nottingham, England, had had a lovely ring about it.

In another piece, from 1992, in the same collection, he writes of the preparations in Venice for winter:

The air is mellow now, and already the passerelle are in place — metal trestles that suppport planks to walk on — a few feet above the level of the anticipated floods. Workmen hurry over the refurbishing of boats in the Stazioni Maritime; the first creosote has been applied to the rafts of the Zattere. Grey spreads into the sky; yesterday’s evening warmth does not arrive. Long before dusk the first of the season’s fogs is hardly more than a mist on the Giudecca. Wisps of it creep eerily through the Arsenal. Gum boots are pushed to the fore in less fashionable shoe-shops.

In 1997 I invited him to contribute to a series I was commissioning for the travel pages of The Sunday Telegraph, “In A Perfect World”, in which I asked writers to  imagine they were in possession of a flying carpet and to say where it would take them between sunrise and sunset. Trevor’s day, which dawned in County Cork and finished on a night train in the Swiss Alps, took in lunch in Paris, afternoon in Sansepolcro and evening in Venice. His morning was spent in the Nire Valley in Co Tipperary, between the Monavullagh Mountains and the Comeraghs:

Like a favourite novel or painting or piece of music, the Nire is my favourite place. In winter if it has been raining for a few weeks you sink into the bog a bit, but only here and there. On a fine day or even in a summer drizzle, there is nowhere I know that matches this bleak beauty. You climb gently, taking your time, sheep staring at you, larks in the heathery undergrowth. Your landmarks are Seefin, Coumfea, Milk Hill, Knockaunapeebra, Crotty’s Rock. You pause to look back at where you’ve come from: the red barn roof is a dot, you can’t see the scarecrows any more. When you reach the first of the corrie lakes you pause also, then clamber on to the next one. Their water is dark, cold as ice, not a ripple on it. At one lake or another, intimidating rockfaces surround you. Ireland is spread below you.

Not a footprint, not even a bushman’s

skeletoncoastaircraftBetween the Atlantic and the desert: a light aircraft off the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Picture: Olivier Goujon/Robert Harding

Even when he’s looking out of his house at the green hills of Dorset, BRIAN JACKMAN can’t help wondering if it’s raining in the Serengeti, and if the lions are roaring across Musiara Marsh. Africa has for long been a second home to him. In a new book, ‘Savannah Diaries’, he looks back over his  journeys into the bush. Here he reports on one made in 1990 to the last great wilderness of southern Africa, Namibia

There is no road to Purros; only the ruts of old tyre tracks disappearing westward into the mountains and deserts of Kaokoland. Purros itself is nothing but a scattering of shacks and mud huts belonging to the Himba, nomadic pastoralists who dress in skins and roam the hills with their scrawny goats.

As we lurch down the dried-up bed of the Gomatum River, a tributary of the Hoarusib, the sky turns black and thunder rumbles in the hills. “Is it going to rain?” I ask. Sitting at the wheel of his Toyota Land Cruiser, my companion, the photographer David Coulson, looks up at the sky and shakes his head. “Not here,” he says positively. “Not in the desert.”

Coulson should know. He has been travelling around Namibia for years, recording its rich heritage of African rock art. But even as he speaks the first fat spots begin to fall and moments later we are in the thick of a ferocious tropical storm – and it is precisely at this moment that fate decides we should have a puncture. There is nothing for it but to leap out into the lashing rain and change the wheel. Within seconds we are soaked to the skin.

When at last the wheel is fixed I unlace my desert boots and hold them upside down to pour the water out, and think to myself what an odd way this is to begin a journey into one of the driest and most inaccessible places on earth.

Namibia is the last great wilderness in southern Africa and much of it is desert. Some of its rivers do not run for years, and in some places no rain has fallen for almost a century. To explore such demanding terrain requires local expertise, and that is why we are heading to Purros, to rendezvous with Louw and Amy Schoeman, who are going to take us to the Skeleton Coast.

The Skeleton Coast National Park is a strip of desert up to 25 miles wide, running south for some 300 miles from the Kunene River on the Angolan border to the Ugab River, near Cape Cross. When the park was proclaimed in 1971 it was decided to set aside the northern sector as a wilderness area where only limited tourism would be allowed; and in 1977 it was Schoeman, a practising attorney and one-time diamond prospector turned tour operator, who was awarded the concession to operate fly-in safaris there.

Since then he has flown, driven and walked all over the area and come to know it better than anyone. “Never underestimate the desert,” he says. “It isn’t hostile but it can be dangerous – even deadly if you don’t know it. But I’ve been coming here for 30 years and it’s just like moving around my own living room.”

From Purros we follow Schoeman across what he thinks of as the most beautiful land on earth, traversing immense gravel plains with no sign of life except a few springbok and ostrich on the farthest horizons, until we come at sunset to his lonely camp on the edge of the Khumib River. The river had flowed a month ago after heavy storms in the mountains up country, says Louw; but now it is bone-dry again.

The mess tent stands under the spreading branches of an ancient omumborombonga or leadwood, the holy tree of the Herero people, who believe it to be the ancestor of all life on earth; and at suppertime a pair of shy, spotted genets emerges from its branches to wait for scraps.

When I go to bed, ducking into my low-slung tent, I fancy I can smell the sea on the night breeze, even though the coast is a good eight miles away; and sure enough, when I awake in the stillness of dawn I can hear the dull roar of the Atlantic surf, like the distant drum roll of a passing jet.

After breakfast, before we set out I am given a hat, a legionnaire-style kepi with a flap to protect the back of my neck from the desert sun, although Schoeman insists on going hatless, even on the hottest days. With his grey hair and avuncular manner he has the look of a country doctor; but in reality he is one of Namibia’s most experienced desert veterans, possessed of an endless store of knowledge gleaned from the barren world about us.

“We’re paranoid about vehicle tracks up here,” he says as we steer through the dune-fields towards the sea. “The desert is a fragile place, easy to scar and slow to heal. I can show you the tracks made in 1943 to rescue survivors from the wreck of the Dunedin Star. Even now they look as if they were made only last week; and there are other areas, on the coarser, more stable gravel plains, where tyre tracks will last for centuries.”

We drive on through a desolation of barchan dunes – wandering sandhills that crawl across the desert floor before the prevailing southerly winds at the rate of as much as 100 feet a year. At first glance these shifting sands seem utterly devoid of life; yet every slope bears a scribble of tracks – signatures left by side-winder snakes, scuttling lizards and fog beetles, which collect the dew that condenses on their backs.

In places the sands are stained a rich maroon, as if someone has emptied giant vats of claret down the slopes. Louw hands me a magnifying glass and tells me to take a closer look. With my nose in the sand I squint through the glass and see that each polished grain is in fact a miniature gemstone. I am lying on a bed of garnets.

With Louw I learn the secret of driving in the dune-fields. You simply let down the tyres until they are like squashy balloons. Then, with the vehicle in four-wheel drive, you put your foot down and float through the soft sand with a sensation akin to skiing in powder snow.

As we come over the last crest of sand there is the glorious sight of the Atlantic below, with huge rollers crashing on an empty strand. Offshore lie two trawlers, rising and falling among the green hills of the sea. “Spanish, probably,” says Louw. “They’ve robbed this country of billions of tons of fish.”

We walk down to a beach that is knee-deep in spume: an extraordinary phenomenon produced by the rich blooms of plankton that thrive in the cold Benguela Current. Whipped up by the surf to the consistency of shaving cream, it covers the shore in thick, quivering blankets, slowly breaking up in the wind to roll away like tumbleweed.

Up and down the coast as far as the eye can see, the sands are littered with the flotsam of centuries; a tangle of ships’ masts, planks and spars, with here and there the bleached skeleton of a great whale, butchered by the American whaling fleets a hundred years ago. Kelp gulls watch us at a distance and ghost crabs tiptoe away over the sands like shadows; but ours are the only footprints.

 

THE FOLLOWING DAY we fly up the Skeleton Coast on our way north to the Kunene River, where Schoeman has another camp overlooking the Angolan border. Below us are scattered more masts, more ribs and vertebrae and giant jawbones of the vanished whales. We fly low over a colony of Cape fur seals hauled out on the beach and narrowly miss a flock of rare Damara terns that rise from the water like a white cloud in front of us and go swirling past our wing-tips. Had we hit them it would have brought down our small aircraft as effectively as any ground-to-air missile, but Schoeman appears unperturbed, and I learn later that among his friends he is known as “low-flying Schoeman”.

At last we come to the wide brown mouth of the Kunene and follow it inland across a scene of utter desolation. To the south lies nothing but the glare of saltpans, a terrifying emptiness reaching away into the dunes and mountain ranges of Kaokoland. To the north rise the sun-scorched rocks of Angola. “Amazing to think that most of this country we’ve been flying over has never seen a human foot on it,” Schoeman yells above the engine’s roar. “Not even a bushman.”

It seems impossible that there could be any safe place to land in this burnt and broken country; but eventually a strip appears and we touch down on a wide plain to step out into the blowtorch heat of late afternoon.

A vehicle is waiting to take us to camp. Recent rains have raised a faint flush of green grass from the red sand, but already it is withering in the unrelenting heat. To the south, a range of nameless hills raises granite heads. Rock kestrels whistle among the crags and larks fly up as we drive along the stone ridges in search of a safe place to descend to the river, but their cries are torn away on the hot wind.

By the time we reach camp the sun is setting. Shadows seep out of the ground like smoke, filling the hollows of the hills above the gorge in which the river is hissing and swirling in spate. There is a swimming pool among the rocks (the river itself is full of crocodiles), and although there is barely room enough to turn around, it is bliss to cool off and then sit with a cold beer and watch the lightning flickering in the mountains of Angola.

Somewhere in those forbidding hinterlands is where the Kunene has its source in the same giant watershed that gives rise to the Zambezi and the Okavango. But unlike them, the Kunene flows westward to the Atlantic, forming one of the loneliest frontiers on earth.

“Nobody comes here to see animals,” says Schoeman. “It’s not like the Etosha National Park. You come for the remoteness, the ruggedness. That’s what the Kunene is all about. Mass tourism has no place here; but a lucky few will pay for the privilege of coming to such a wild area, and they need the kind of guidance we can provide because it’s not a good place to get stuck in.”

Next morning, Schoeman launches an inflatable boat powered by two giant outboard engines and we set off upstream, bouncing over the racing brown current in which fierce whirlpools spin and gurgle under our bows. After about a mile of this the gorge begins to narrow, causing the water to become even more turbulent as it tumbles towards us in a series of rapids. Here the river tries its best to unseat us, but we cling on grimly as the boat bucks and turns beneath our feet.

Ahead loom towering walls of granite, closing in like the gates of hell. Somehow we squeeze through them and surge on past a chaos of sunless cliffs that have collapsed like a stack of giant dominoes, until our way is blocked by an enormous cataract and we can go no further.

Once we are out of the rapids, returning downstream is far more enjoyable. Goliath herons flap out of the reeds and brilliant green-and-yellow bee-eaters sit on the swaying branches of the winterthorns above luxuriant tangles of morning-glory flowers.

Back at camp we laze over a late breakfast, then leave the Kunene to fly back to the Khumib. Once more that savage northern landscape unfolds below, the sands a smouldering Martian red, the blinding soda pans, the mountains flayed by wind and sun. I am glad I have been to the Kunene, but at the same time I cannot deny feeling a sense of relief to be escaping from its brooding hostility.

 

savannahdiariescoverExtracted from Savannah Diaries by Brian Jackman (Bradt).
© 2014 Brian Jackman.

Brian Jackman is a journalist and author who has had a lifelong passion for travel and wildlife. His other African books include The Marsh Lions and The Big Cat Diary (both with Jonathan Scott) and Roaring at the Dawn. For more about his work, see his website.

The smell of wet earth: monsoon in Bangladesh

Most of us travel to escape the rain. The photographer GMB Akash sought it out on his home turf of Bangladesh, documenting both the joy and the difficulties brought by this year’s monsoon. On the basis that the best travel writing repays rereading, his images are combined here with a passage from Chasing The Monsoon by Alexander Frater, which was first published in 1990

At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started. Two hours fifty minutes later racing cumulus extinguished the sun and left everything washed in an inky violet light. At 4.50, announced by deafening ground-level thunderclaps, the monsoon finally rode into Cochin. The cloud-base blew through the trees like smoke; rain foamed on the hotel’s harbourside lawn and produced a bank of hanging mist as opaque as hill fog. In the coffee shop the waiters rushed to the windows, clapping and yelling, their customers forgotten. One, emerging from the kitchen bearing a  teapot destined for the conference room (where, it was rumoured, executives  of the Indian Spices Board sat in closed session), glimpsed the magniloquent spectacle outside, banged the teapot down on my table and ran to join them crying, “Ho! Ho! Ho!’

Heaving a door open I stepped outside. Soaked to the skin within seconds, I felt a wonderful sense of flooding warmth and invigoration; it was, indubitably, a bit like being born again. Raindrops ran like coins on the flagstoned path and the air was filled with fusillades of crimson flowers from the flamboyant trees; they went arcing by like tracer and, raked by an especially mean burst, I can testify that flamboyant blossoms hitting you in the eye at 60 k.p.h. cause pain and temporary loss of vision. At Fort Cochin they were ringing the bells in St Francis Church. In the dark harbour small boats ran for home. Waves bursting over the scalloped sea wall were suffused, curiously, with pink light. The jetty, set under a small wooden gazebo, vanished beneath heavy surf. Orange tiles cladding the gazebo’s steeply pitched roof began to tremble until, like clay pigeons being sprung, they went whirling off into the murk one by one.

Then, from the corner of an eye still watering from the flower strike, I witnessed an astonishing scene. Two straining waiters held the coffee shop door open while a party of men and women filed into the storm. The men wore button-down shirts and smart business suits, the women best-quality silk saris and high-heeled shoes; as they emerged, they opened their arms one by one and  lifted their faces to the rain.

The Spices Board had come out to greet the monsoon.

They made for the jetty, strolling, laughing out loud, calling, revolving slowly in a kind of dream-like gavotte. In the gazebo they stood knee-deep in seething water while the wind blew spiralling flumes of rain up over the peak of the disintegrating roof; the flumes united there in a fountainhead which, along with the tiles, kept getting snatched away. Buffeted by the gusts, unbalanced by the waves, the Spices Board executives clung to each other with water in their eyes and looks of sublime happiness on their faces. A young woman in a soaked and flapping gold-coloured sari laughed at me and clapped her hands. ’Paradise will be like this,’ she shouted.

Pictures © GMB Akash 2013. Text, extracted from Chasing The Monsoon by Alexander Frater, © Alexander Frater (Picador 2005/2011).

GMB Akash (born 1977), a graduate of the renowned South Asian Institute of Photography in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has had work featured in publications ranging from National Geographic to Vogue and won numerous prizes, including the Young Reporter’s Award from the Scope Photo Festival in Paris, a World Press Photo Award and first prize in the Travel Photographer of the Year competition. His 10-year project documenting the lives of those on the margins of society, from street children to prostitutes, was published as Survivors; 25 per cent of the price of each copy goes towards projects benefiting those he photographed. For more about his work, see his website and blog

Alexander Frater was born in Vanuatu in the South Pacific, where the first sounds he heard were of falling rain. He now lives in London, though whenever time and money allow is likely to be found skulking deep in the hot, wet tropics. A former chief travel correspondent of The Observer, he has three times been named travel writer of the year in the British Press Awards. His latest book is The Balloon Factory: The story of the men who built Britain’s first flying machines (Picador).